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Heaven is for Real: A Little Boy's Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back

Heaven is for Real: A Little Boy's Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back - Todd Burpo, Lynn Vincent True story #1: My husband’s former boss once told him she has evidence for a past life: she spoke Welsh (a language she is completely unfamiliar with) in her sleep.

My husband asked the obvious question: “How do you know you spoke Welsh in your sleep?”

She had a friend spending the night, and the friend heard her talking in her sleep, “and she said I was speaking Welsh.”

“Does she speak Welsh?”

“Well, no. But she said it sounded like Welsh.”

Every time I hear someone say, “This is how I know such-and-such is true,” I think about this story.

I think about the people who wouldn’t bother to ask any questions after hearing this woman announce that she spoke Welsh in her sleep.

I think about the fact that my husband’s questions didn’t change her mind one bit about what she believes.

I think about the fact that she’s deciding how the universe works based on one incredibly flimsy anecdote.

I think about how she might react if I suggested that what had really happened was, the government has been messing around with telepathic language education programs, and her head accidentally got in the path of one of their experiments.

She’d tell me I was being ridiculous, I’m sure.


Why is that idea any odder than the concept of an invisible, intangible spirit that flits from body to body and retains memories of some of its voyages?

“Memory” is too strong a word for something she has no recollection of, of course. But the idea that she’s a very specific sort of immortal being – one who collects rare languages along the way! – is apparently preferable to the idea that, as Charlotte says in Charlotte’s Web, “We’re born, we live a little while, we die.”

There’s plenty of evidence for that, but nobody likes to look at it.

True story #2: When I was in second grade, I heard someone say something about skipping a grade in school. I’d never heard of this concept, and I was curious. This was decades before the Internet, so when I got home, I asked my mother, “How do people skip grades?”

My mother didn’t reply in a matching matter-of-fact tone, “Oh, there’s a testing process.” To which I would have replied, “Oh,” and said no more about it. Because I wasn’t interested in skipping a grade myself. I just wanted to know what it was, the same way I wanted to know how caterpillars turned into butterflies and why reptiles were called “cold-blooded.”

Instead, my mother’s eyes lit up with fondness, hope, and pride. “Do you want to skip a grade?” she asked warmly.

I was one of four kids at the time. (More would come later.) My mother was a very troubled individual, and no one had ever taught her much about parenting or patience. The only time I got positive attention from her was when I successfully fulfilled my designation as “the smart one.”

I could respond (truthfully), “Not really – I was just wondering,” and watch the glow vanish from her face. Or I could nod speechlessly and feel like a fraud for (let me check my watch) the rest of my life.

I don’t blame her much for asking, since I can see how it might sound as if I were hinting in that direction; but I can’t much blame myself either for not having the moral fiber to answer honestly. I just couldn’t stand the thought of watching her eager expression go blank and disappointed.

So I took the tests and got promoted a grade and listened to my parents bragging about their super-smart kid and felt a mishmash of emotions I can’t begin to break down even now.

I thought of this story all through reading HifR. I thought about how my mother probably thinks she was being a supportive parent when her daughter came home begging to skip a grade.

True story #3: My father spent a lot of my childhood unemployed, and we were broke as often as not. We never went on vacation, or even on day-trips. Nevertheless, my parents were able to come up with the money to enroll us all in a three-day seminar sure to change our lives by teaching us the Silva Mind Control method.

This was presented as a matter-of-fact miracle factory. My sisters and I were told stories of children who performed all sorts of wonders, even curing faraway strangers suffering from fatal diseases – just by using their Silva-taught mental powers!

The children’s classes we took barely touched on this sort of life-saving work, though. Instead, we were encouraged to focus on something showier and easier to check: bending cutlery just by thinking about it.

Give a classroom full of children a spoon apiece and tell them how impressed you’ll be by anyone who can bend that thing like it had melted in their hot little hands. Emphasize this point frequently. Give the kids several hours to “perform.” Don’t pressure them by watching them too closely, and (of course!) allow them to handle the spoons as much as they like. Make sure you only have one or two grownups riding herd on 30 kids. Have those grownups step outside frequently for coffee breaks. Oh, and if you see one of the kids vigorously pushing and pulling on the neck of the spoon – bending it using brute force rather then mind-powers – assure the other children that this is known in the business as “loosening it up.”

What will you get?

You’ll get 28 kids with silverware bent every which way, and two dejected, bewildered children clutching spoons stubbornly set in their original spoony curves. These two will wonder where they went wrong as they watch the other kids eating up praise from the proud grownups.

You might want to keep this story in mind as you read HifR. (P.S. Yes, I was one of the two. My older sister was the other. After spending several years of childhood feeling like a loser, I’m very proud of both of us.)

True story #4: Carol Tavris relates a startling story from her own life in Mistakes Were Made (but not by me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts, the terrific book she co-authored with Elliot Aronson. Tavris’ favorite children’s book was James Thurber’s The Wonderful O, which she remembers her father giving her as a child:

“A band of pirates takes over an island and forbids the locals to speak any word or use any object containing the letter O. I have a vivid memory of my father reading The Wonderful O and our laughing together at the thought of shy Ophelia Oliver saying her name without its O’s. I remember trying valiantly, along with the invaded islanders, to guess the fourth O word that must never be lost (after love, hope, and valor), and my father’s teasing guesses: Oregon? Orangutan? Ophthalmologist?”

Isn’t that sweet? Many of us cherish similar fond memories from childhood.

Oh, wait. I forgot the important part:

“And then, not long ago, I found my first edition of The Wonderful O. It had been published in 1957, one year after my father’s death.”


“I stared at that date in disbelief and shock. Obviously, someone else gave me that book, someone else read it to me, someone else laughed with me about Phelia Liver, someone else wanted me to understand that the fourth O was freedom. Someone lost to my recollection.”

Many of us have read the many books, articles, and blog posts available on how human memory really works, and how reliable it isn’t. I’d guess that most of us shake our heads and murmur to ourselves, “Wow. It’s amazing how flawed everybody else’s memory is.”

Stories like Carol Tavris’ make it a little harder to hold on to that comfortable sense of superiority.

True Story #5: My teenage son is homeschooled, so he only knows things I taught him.

Just kidding. He knows more about how my car works than I do, though I’m the one who knows how to drive it. He knows about TV shows I’ve never watched or even heard of, and we never have the TV on unless we’re all watching a movie together. He has taught himself all manner of things about electronic music production. And don’t get me started on Lego engineering. (Yes, that’s a thing.)

Stick with me. We’re almost there.

True Story #6, and I swear this is the last one plus it’s short: When I was six or seven, my lung collapsed. I’d always suffered from asthma, but this was worse than anything I’d ever experienced. All morning I’d been wheezing around the house, desperately hoping for some sort of improvement. Finally, I told my mother something along the lines of, “This is bad. This is different.” She rushed me to the hospital. On this short drive, a big part of my mind was occupied with the possibility that this could be The End for our young heroine. The rest was wondering how grownups always knew how to get to important places like hospitals. (Several decades later, as I consistently get lost even with the help of GPS and online map services, I’m still impressed by the driving feats my parents’ generation managed using, apparently, nothing but a compass and the stars.)

Lots of true stories (in no particular order). Here’s where they come in.

Heaven is for Real is a book whose author, Todd Burpo, spends what feels like half the story saying, “There’s no way my son could have known that.” Usually, “that” is something religious – specifically Protestant Christian.

Colton, the child in question, is the son of a very engaged and active pastor. He lives in a town Burpo describes as having “more churches than banks.” Colton goes to Sunday school, and is regularly read Bible storybooks at home. But somehow, there’s “no way” he could have known that angels have halos. He absolutely, positively never heard about halos in church or Sunday school, and there’s no way he ever saw anything about halos in a picture book. See page 74 of the paperback edition if you think I’m exaggerating how vigorously the author denies the possibility that his kid could know anything about what most of us consider to be one of the two defining characteristics of angels (the other being wings, of course).

Nearly four-year-old Colton spends five days in the hospital with an undiagnosed ruptured appendix. He’s violently ill pretty much nonstop.

After the doctors finally figure out what the heck is wrong and remove what’s left of his appendix, Colton looks his Dad in the eye and says, “Daddy, you know I almost died.”

Well, duh.

I mean, no way:

“Fear gripped me. Where did he hear that? Had he overheard the medical staff talking? Had he heard something the surgical team said, despite the anesthesia? Because we certainly hadn’t said anything about his being close to death. Sonja and I had feared he was at the brink, had known it after we learned his appendix had been leaking poison into his system for five days. But we’d been very careful not to say anything in front of Colton that would scare him.”

Which I believe. What I can’t believe is that any parent is thick enough to think his dangerously afflicted kid won’t figure out that maybe, just maybe, he’s a goner. That was the first place I went in my head when my lung collapsed. I wasn’t much older than Colton, I wasn’t nearly as ill, and nobody had mentioned death or dying around me, either. Funnily enough, I figured it out from landing in the hospital after I could barely get enough air to tell my mom I needed help.

Remember the story about the woman who “spoke Welsh” in her sleep? Burpo has a similar story about grabbing the phone and calling his wife with the news that “[Colton] told me he met John the Baptist!”

Well, yeah. Technically. After a lot of questions from his dad, including his dad telling Colton John the Baptist’s name.

Burpo insists all through the book that Colton offered information about Heaven all on his own – and, okay, sometimes after lots of questions from his curious parents.

I can’t tell you how many times I stopped reading and thought (or said aloud, if my husband was there), “Objection, your honor. Counsel is leading the witness.”

Quite aside from that: Given how much time went by between Colton’s visit to Heaven and Todd Burpo deciding to write a book about it, I can’t have much confidence in the conversations he relates from memory. Yes, those memories would be very vivid, since they relate to his faith and his son, two things Burpo cares deeply about. Carol Tavris has vivid memories about her much-loved father. Those memories turned out to be how trustworthy, exactly?

Burpo insists that Colton described things on Heaven and Earth that there’s just no way he could have known about. Burpo doesn’t seem to mind, in one recorded instance, when Colton gets things wrong:

“You said you went to heaven. People have to die to go to heaven.”

“Well, okay then, I died. But just for a little bit.”

Except that Burpo has the postop report from Colton’s surgery. Colton never stopped breathing. His heart never stopped beating. He didn’t die on the operating table.

After a startled moment, Burpo remembers sections of the Bible “about people who had seen heaven without dying.” Which is fine, so far as it goes on the theological front. But Burpo doesn’t seem to notice, amidst all the “There’s no way he could have known that!” anecdotes, that Colton was nudged by his father’s questions into saying something completely factually incorrect.

And Colton is getting plenty of incentive to keep telling stories. I’m not saying he was lying. I’m saying kids go where we push them. Burpo was calling people on the phone and inviting them over to hear the things his kid had to say about Heaven. Later, his own church was packed with people who came to hear the story he’d promised to tell about this amazing child. (And the actual kid was there for the sermon! Bonus!)

I’ve had plenty of experience with what happens to kids who want to live up to grownup expectations. My mother would swear to this day I asked her to let me skip second grade. The other kids in the Silva class performed “magic” after being told that applying any kind of pressure they wanted to their spoons was fine – as long as the result was something that would look cool in a photo for their newsletter. (And I’m willing to bet those kids “remember” using nothing more than the force of their mental powers on that hapless cutlery.)

To conclude (finally): I do not recommend this book unless you already agree with its premise. If you’re a critical thinker, it will drive you nuts. Also, it’s not particularly well written. (At one point, Burpo describes the kids in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe as having been “deported from London” when they paid their visit to the house with the magic door. I do not think that word means what you think it means.) It’s very short, and I still had a hard time finishing it.

If you liked this book and it made you happy: good! The world needs more happy. I’m not going to throw trash all over your review. Please don’t trash mine. Thank you.